St. Paul, Minn. — When the Minnesota Orchestra performed the world premiere of the score of Debra Frasier's celebrated childrens' book "On the Day You Were Born," it was a watershed moment for the composer, Stephen Heitzeg.
"It really made a tremendous difference in my career," Heitzeg says. "It was the first really large commission for me and then it was also the first world premiere for me with a major orchestra."
Heitzeg was paid by the Twin Cities based Commissioning Club. The Commissioning Club started 13 years ago, the brainchild of Jack and Linda Hoeschler of St. Paul. They had been avidly commissioning music for years. Linda Hoeschler says lots of people would heap praise on the couple for their efforts, but few followed their lead. Early one morning she says, her husband Jack awoke with an idea.
"And I said what's that," Hoeschler says. "And he said, well, it's like an investment club. He said 'We'll get couples together, and we'll ask them each to put in a set contribution every year, and we'll invest in a composer.' And so I said 'Go back to sleep. Let me see how it sounds in the morning!'"
The Hoeschlers eventually contacted four other like-minded couples to explore the idea. They came over for dinner, had a great time talking music and the club was born.
I think this is the most fun I've ever had spending money
"We ended up doing kind of a code of how we'd operate," Hoeschler says, "And that was we would start with the premise of, what kind of music does the group think needs to be written? Then we would decide who was the best composer for that piece, then who are the musicians we'd want to play it and then where should it be performed."
Which club members acknowledge is quite a bit of work. It requires a lot of preparation, research, tape listening time and debate. But for them it's time spent doing something they truly enjoy. While they prefer to describe themselves purely as active concert goers, several of the members have serious musical backgrounds. It's not a young group, some are nearing retirement age. The Commissioning Club meets four times a year. Each couple's annual contribution is two thousand dollars. Thus far, the club has commissioned 12 pieces.
"I think this is the most fun I've ever had spending money," club member Judy Ranheim says.
She likes the idea that she can, in a small way, influence the course of new music by being a part of its creation. And, as Jack Hoeschler puts it, the group is united by a desire to create more listenable contemporary music with more emotional content.
"It is music that we like to listen to," he says. "And I make that distinction between the squeaks and the squawks that we used to hear in the 60s and 70s that we were told was the latest thing and in fact the way music was going. But none of us, or at least much of us, couldn't believe it. And a lot of people didn't like it and simply walked out and never came back."
Before the Commissioning Club selects a composer, it has to decide what music needs to be written. David Ranheim says the club bases that decision not on whole categories of music, but mainly on individual groupings of instruments.
"Was there somebody that was doing an oboe concerto?" he says. "Was there somebody that was doing a wind quintet piece? Was there somebody that really hadn't thought about doing something for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which could be any combination of instruments. So it was really more a matter of the groupings of instruments and the repertoire for those groupings of instruments, rather than saying we see a dearth in a particular genre of music."
Because of that, most of what the club has commissioned so far has been solo or chamber works. After it's written, the Commissioning Club lets the composer have the rights to the music he or she creates. Then club members take on the role of executive producers and shop the piece around, to make sure its premiere isn't just a one night stand.
For Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus, all this extra effort is what separates the Commissioning Club from other patrons who merely write checks.
Paulus has had several pieces commissioned by the club, including his Dramatic Suite. It was written expressly for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Festival in New York. Paulus says it premiered at the prestigious Avery Fisher Hall, and was reviewed.
"It could have been premiered in some out-of-the-way place, no review, no memorable hall, and it dies," he says.
Thanks to the Commissioning Club, the piece was performed dozens more times and ended up being published and recorded.
"That's not delivering one thing," he says, "that's delivering dozens of things, which has a huge influence on a career."
Linda Hoeschler says many individuals have been inspired by the club to start commissioning music. But as far as she knows, there are still no groups like hers anywhere.
Hoeschler thinks it's partly because of the amount of work that's involved, and the fact that too many people aren't confident enough in their own tastes to share them with others. She believes the club is setting the right example though.
"We feel that we've become a kind of historic group," she says. A small piece of history albeit, but really an important one, and a model to think about how can you support the arts?"
Hoeschler says outside of raising two great kids, The Commissioning Club is the most important thing she and her husband have ever done.